Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Thoughts on Newsweek's "Christianity in Crisis"

(Picture Credit: Newsweek,  2 April 2012)
This week, there is an article on Newsweek that gives a provocative title, 'Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.' The title is attractive. The theory however is deceptive. If I may even put it, it is not simply bad ecclesiology. It is at best a misunderstanding of what Christ lived for, and at worst, a mischievous way to ride the ways of controversial press hype at the expense of the Church.

If you read the article itself, you will find the main argument as follows: "Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him."

Beginning with a description of Thomas Jefferson's efforts at cutting out and pasting in of various bible passages that depict the real Jesus, Sullivan argues that there is a 'real' kind of Christianity that we need to recover. Before we can do that, we need to dismantle the current version of Christianity that has been politicized, abused by the priesthood, and used by unscrupulous self-help, and self-seeking Christian superstars. He passionately calls us to go back to Jesus alone, using people like Francis of Assisi as a model.

My Comments

Destroyed? Is he saying all Churches?

Forget the Church? Is he saying all Churches are useless?

Follow Jesus instead? Is he saying that Churches themselves are not following Jesus?

I find Sullivan's article mind-boggling.

While I agree that the Church in general has been getting more negative publicity nowadays, that in no way means it is destroying Christianity. Arriving at such a conclusion is overly simplistic. If we do so, we will also easily conclude that with Jesus, the law is destroyed. Yet, remember what Jesus Himself has said:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)

The same gospel writer even says this of the Church.

"Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadesd will not overcome it." (Matthew 16:17-18)

While I agree with Sullivan's description of some of the damages done to the Church image by some politicians, some priests, and some polished speakers claiming to speak for Christ, I am disappointed that his article has generalized the Church in such an unfairly negative image. Sullivan admits that he himself is a believer in "Jesus' divinity and resurrection," but by his call to 'forget the Church' he is denying Jesus' teachings that the way to build the kingdom of God is through the Church that is founded on Christ. Instead of forgetting about the Church, the proper way is to redeem it.

Did Christ abolish all the laws of the land and to call for a civil rights movement against paying taxes? No! He says that we ought to render to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's. Did Christ forget about men and women simply because they are beyond hope? No! Christ came to redeem all mankind. This is the essence of Good Friday. Note the contrast:

"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8)

Imagine where we would be if Jesus were to give up on the Jews and the people during the 1st Century. Did He say that the will of God be done only when people show signs of repentance? No! While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is the good news of Good Friday. This is the reason for Passion Week. This is because love overcomes all boundaries. Christ died for all, both righteous and unrighteous. This is the way of Jesus.

Unfortunately, Sullivan in his article misses the point. By giving up on the Church, he is essentially giving up on the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is not resistance from the Church but redemption of the Church. It is not battling our own fellow believers, but to resist the worldliness that has infiltrated the Church. Sullivan himself admits:

"I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God."

For someone who has 'no concrete idea' about his key proposal to forget about the Church, Sullivan is downright irresponsible to call people to leave their churches. Embracing Jesus is to embrace the people of God through redemption, beginning with ourselves.

This article looks good and promising on the outside, but when we read the article itself, it is full of potholes that the unwitting Christian can fall through. It is again a misguided ecclesiology at its best, and mischievous shot at the Church at its worst. To publish this at the beginning of Holy Week is not only a distraction to what many Churches in the Church are trying to encourage congregations to follow Jesus, it is a discouragement for true believers who are already trying to show the best of Church.



Sze Zeng said...

Good critique, Kian Seng! What Sullivan suggested is nothing less than domesticating Jesus into some sort of good-moral-teacher, not unlike the "Jesus" from Jesus Seminar.

Conrade Yap said...

Thanks Sze Zeng.

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